South East Asia doesn’t know Mexican food. Each port that had a “cantina” that served up something slightly resembling a taco or burrito, and the ship Mexican station was unsatisfactory to say the least with meat that looked like cat food and frozen guacamole. Since being back in the USA, we’ve had an insatiable craving for Tex-Mex, the only food we missed over 8 months of travel.
We decided an East Harlem taco crawl was what the doctor ordered.
Stop One: La Chula
With a stumble along planned itinerary, stop one was La Chula. The corner restaurant is chipotle-esq with the food being prepared on a visible, hot line style, but with a set menu, table service, and better décor. The men behind the bar and grill were friendly as we ordered our tacos and margaritas, collected our number, and sat down. In under 7 minutes our order arrived. The frozen margarita was overly sweet and lacked the advertised spice. The al Pastor taco had dry, but flavorful meat with a hint of sweetness and punch of cilantro. The shrimp taco had an interesting flavor profile with an unlikely combo of shellfish, cheese, and crunchy lettuce that was almost cohesive. What bumped La Chula up a notch was the delicious tortillas that had a fresh taste and perfect texture.
Bottom Line: La Chula serves average tacos at a decent price ($3.95) with standard fillings on a great tortilla. Don’t bother with the $10 margarita.
Frugal Tip!: If you go on Monday, Margaritas are 2 for $10.
Stop Two: Taqueria Sante Fe
What lured us into Taqueria Sante Fe was the fact that the man behind the counter wearing a sombrero. What can I say, we are easily amused. After placing our order and sitting on the dinky chairs, it quickly became obvious that the hole in the wall was a seamless/ubereats driven eatery with food being pumped out and picked up as the phone kept ringing followed by the sounds of a service bell. To be blunt, the carnitas and pulled pork tacos were horrid and unworthy of even being called a taco. The meat looked like canned cat food dumped onto a store bought tortilla with a touch a pico and splash of cilantro attempting to make the food in front of us be considered a taco. I took a bite of each and was done.
Bottom Line: You’re better off getting canned tuna.
Stop Three: Hot Jalapeño
Hot Jalapeño is a classic Mexican sit down restaurant with stucco walls and religious icons on the walls. The only waitress must have been an owner of sorts, and she was running around everything being sure all the customers were attended to. We opted for a carne asada and al pastor taco, hoping and wishing for deliciousness to ensue because we loved the woman so much. Unfortunately, the meat was dry, the tortilla was average, and the toppings were unoriginal. The red hot sauce on the side, however, had a delicious, deep heat with a flavor we couldn’t quite pinpoint.
Drinks: 6/10 (only beer and wine)
Bottom line: The tacos at Hot jalapeño wouldn’t be worth a second trip given the average meat and basic flavors, but the other traditional Mexican dishes coming out the kitchen looked promising, and I’d give it another shot.
Stop 4: Taco Mix
Taco Mix earned a lot of hype on social media, and it certainly looked promising given the number of people and great looking rotating meat. We got the Grande Al Pastor; the meat was tender with typical Mexican spices, the onion was fresh, the cilantro was nice, and the radish added a good crunch. The hot sauce was moderately spicy and the tortilla neither added or took away from the experience.
Ambiance: NA given the take out nature
Bottom Line: It was a perfectly fine, decently cheap taco, but nothing I’d recommend to a friend and nothing I couldn’t make myself.
Stop 5: Made in Mexico Harlem
116th wasn’t proving to have high quality tacos, so we bailed south and happened upon Made in Mexico Harlem. Music was blaring and it was packed with young locals surrounded by abstract Mexican-influenced art with bright colors and cheap hardware. The tacos came before the margaritas, and with just one look we knew they would be horrible. The fish taco was drenched in a cheese sauce that gushed out of the flimsy tortilla on bite one and the “avocado” topping was a blended green mess. The chicken taco was a tortilla topped with grocery store chicken strips and some greenery. The worst part? These were the priciest tacos of our adventure coming in at $6 each. The average margarita was much welcomed, and we downed it in order to move on.
Bottom line: don’t do it to yourself.
Stop 6: El Aguila
Desperately needing to end on a high note, we decided to finish at El Aguila which came up on a couple “Best Harlem Taco” searches. El Aguila serves food in a Chipotle hot line fashion and we built yet another El Pastor taco with all the works on it; meat, cheese, pico, jalepenos, lettuce, hot sauce, cilantro, and lime. It was by far the best taco of the crawl, with great, fresh flavor, juicy meat, and a bit of zing. It’s the one place I would return to on this taco mission.
Bottom Line: for quick, cheap, delicious take out tacos , El Aguila is hands down your spot.
Stop 7: The Rochard NYC
The original intention was to do a taco/margarita crawl, but we quickly found that most places were too small for a liquor license, meaning no tequila…. A vital component of a good marg. We passed the Rochard NYC, saw two open bar spots, and figured why not. The spicy Margaritas were disappointingly average, but gladly welcomed. Up on the blackboard we spotted a sign: “Taco Tuesday”. Guess we were making room for one more. The fish taco had catfish, pineapple, salsa, chipotle aioli, and coijita cheese, and it was on par with the taco at El Aguila. Go figure, the spots run and owned by Mexicans in Spanish Harlem didn’t hold a handle to the upper east side spots.
Bottom Line: A great spot for beers and apps, but also pretty good for margs and tacos!
Stop 8: Block Heads
Going out is a rare occasion for us, we figured we’d go for the gold and take the crosstown bus to Blockheads for one final Margarita. Within 5 minutes of sitting down we got two large icy, frozen margaritas. They were too sweet, but deceptively strong, and a good cap to a whirlwind tour for tacos and margaritas. Did we find the best New York has to offer? Definitely not, but we’re willing to keep trying.